'Bringing the world to CMU'
International student enrollment up by 230% in past year
On Aug. 17 and 18, Ling Zhang, director of Graduate and International Recruitment, stood by a table decorated with a Central Michigan University banner in the Detroit Metro Airport. She helped greet about 30 new international students as they arrived in the Detroit Metro Airport.
It was the first time CMU has done a welcome like this, Zhang said. Several people in the airport came up to her to tell her how great the table was.
But there are far more than 30 international students on CMU’s campus.
This semester, there are about 1,121 total international students on campus, according to reports from the Office of Global Engagement. Those numbers account for students with F-1 visas, which are about 98% of CMU's international students.
Zhang said 636 of them are coming to CMU for the first time. In Fall 2021, there were 192 new international students, she said.
Vice President of Recruitment and Retention Jennifer DeHaemers said most of CMU's international students are in graduate programs. This year, there have been about 40 new undergraduate international students, she said, and CMU wants to recruit more. Many students are more comfortable waiting until after their undergraduate years to study in another country, DeHaemers said.
The keys to this semester's sharp increase, Zhang said, have been adapting to competition with other universities and streamlining the international application process.
“If I didn’t believe in CMU, I wouldn’t have taken this job,” Zhang said. “I can’t sell something that I don’t believe in, and I firmly believe CMU is a good place for our international students.”
“Selling CMU” is not the hard part of recruiting international students, Zhang said, it’s spreading the word around the world that makes her job more challenging.
“Where there is challenge, there is opportunity,” Zhang said. “(COVID-19) did that for us. It was a little bit hard; however, we were all on the same starting point because the cards were reshuffled. For universities that have more resources that can send staff all over the place, they cannot do that anymore because the door was closed.”
Time zone differences mean virtual recruitment events sometimes must be held late at night or early in the morning, something many universities are not willing to do, Zhang said.
“If we are able to, we do it,” Zhang said. “During COVID, there were times in the whole of February and March when we were up at 2 a.m. doing recruitment fairs. That does make a difference.”
Virtual recruitment events turned out to be a successful option for CMU, Zhang said, at a lower cost than traveling abroad. Even so, students do appreciate the personal touch of a visit to their country, she said.
On Sept. 21, Zhang left for a two-week-long solo trip to visit high schools and recruitment fairs in the Middle East. Countries she said she would visit include Jordan, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates and Kuwait.
Zhang said when she was hired, getting enrolled as a new international student was more “frustrating.” Different steps in the process were scattered between various offices at CMU, she said.
Now, Zhang’s office can handle almost every part of an international student’s application, saving valuable time.
“That’s why the streamlining is so important,” Zhang said. “If we don’t have a response for them in a timely manner, they will turn around and go somewhere else.”
Vice President of Recruitment and Retention Jennifer DeHaemers said the U.S. Department of State laid off many of its foreign embassy workers during the pandemic. The remaining employees were working remotely, she said, making it harder to help international students with their visas and other paperwork.
DeHaemers said international students can defer their admission offer up to two semesters at a time before having to apply again.
Because of the layoffs and deferrals, DeHaemers said improvements to the admission process had a "delayed impact," which is why the international student population has increased so much this semester.
Originally from China, Zhang said her experiences as an international student helped her to understand some of the issues CMU’s international students face in the U.S.
Shiyuan Wang, also from China, is a graduate student studying information systems. During his time as an undergraduate student at the University of South Dakota, he said he had a good relationship with Zhang, who worked there at the time.
“She took care of me a lot,” Wang said. “When I chose for my master’s degree, I planned to go with her. She’s very friendly and kindly.”
Wang said he also appreciates the work opportunities given to international students at CMU and how helpful the faculty are.
“Once I came to CMU, every instructor feels like your family,” Wang said. “They really care about your future, and they notice you again and again when you need to start to find a job or how to finish your academic works.”
Some international students also found CMU through a personal connection.
Rimsha Khattak, an undergraduate transfer student from Pakistan, said her brother works as an international recruitment advisor for U.S. universities. He sent her information about several schools with kinesiology programs, including CMU. Khattak said experience taught her to expect faculty to be less responsive to student needs.
“CMU proved me wrong,” Khattak said. “All the faculty, staff were really nice. They give a lot of response to students—and a quick response.”
Coming to CMU was also Khattak’s first time leaving Pakistan. The language proved to be a challenge, she said, but she found help.
“For every problem I was just going to Ling’s office,” Khattak said. “She was so nice and treating me like family. She was like, ‘Don’t lose hope. Everything will be fine.’”
Khattak, a recipient of CMU’s International President’s Award scholarship, said she now strongly recommends CMU to her family and friends in Pakistan.
Shivam Shah, a graduate student from India studying computer science, said these word-of-mouth recommendations are one of CMU’s best ways of reaching new students.
“With CMU, each and every person who knows about CMU gives positive feedback for it,” Shah said. “CMU doesn’t require any kind of marketing—just a good experience. That’s the best way to welcome a person here.”
Shah said CMU’s friendly people and atmosphere also made him feel welcome.
“When I came from my country to over here, my parents, family and each-and-every person was over there,” Shah said, “but when I came over here, I enjoyed the way that people greet me. I didn’t feel a homesickness that I have when I come to a different place.”
Zhang said international students also help CMU by bringing in more money. According to the university's website, undergraduate students from the U.S. pay $440 per credit, while international students pay $800 per credit. For graduate programs, U.S. students pay $726 per credit and international students pay $925 per credit.
“Not only do they bring a healthy tuition revenue to CMU,” Zhang said, “but also the experience and the culture they bring to CMU. That really benefits our domestic students because the world is getting smaller. You almost cannot do any field without interacting as a global citizen. You have to be able to have experience with how the other world operates.
“It would be great for all our domestic students to do study abroad and see it, but that’s not applicable. It’s like we’re bringing the world to CMU.”